On November 18 I started my experiment with no-till grain growing. Using my 1960’s John Deere double disc drill, I planted cereal rye on 26 acres. The soil was moist but firm so the tractor didn’t make ruts. The double discs that V together in each row cut into the soil, at least where there wasn’t too much crop residue, to get the seed in about a half inch. Three weeks on, the rye was coming up nicely. Now at the end of the year, I am seeing noticeable potassium deficiency in the plants, evidenced by a purpling of the leaf tips. My soil tests confirm this. So now I have to decide if I spend $3000 on potassium sulfate to mitigate the problem. I’ll keep you posted. I currently have about $1000 in seed, plus fuel and labor.
Archive for the ‘Farm Update’ Category
As I mentioned in my last post, uncertain weather the last few years and weed problems have pushed me towards an experiment with no-till grain growing. As part of the process I need baseline information about the health of my soils. I applied to the Yuba/Sutter Natural Resources Conservation Service office, a federal agency that tries to do what the name says. They have funding each year to help with projects that conserve soil, water, and air. No-till and cover crops fall under those tasks.
The first step was for the staff of NRCS to come out and do soil tests on each field for soil texture, worm count, ph, bulk density, carbon dioxide extraction, salts, and water infiltration rate. I am doing regular soil testing for organic matter, nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, manganese, boron and cation exchange capacity. All that shows what the chemical balance in the soil is like and what’s deficient. Testing in following years will show what the effects of no-till are.
A couple weeks ago Pa Yang, Han Nguyen, and Litza Lopez-Ramos came out to the farm with their equipment and I helped some while they did their tests on two of the fields. Last week they came and did the other two fields. They will do lab tests and then put a report together with my soil tests. Then I can apply for funding to help with the project.
Through all the months from last October onwards where it rained only a little I was alternately anxious, hopeful, despairing, and finally resigned to not having a crop. My wheat and oats were about a foot high in February, the rye only a few inches and I knew the window for an adequate growth period was closing fast.
Then, lo and behold, it started to rain and did so for weeks. I even started to worry that we’d have a repeat of last year’s cold, wet spring where everything grew poorly. The rained stopped in mid-April, though, and the sun came out. I finally went to the farm last week to look and I think this will be the best crop I’ve ever had. It had jumped from a foot to two feet in just three weeks. Even the vetch cover crop had gone from a few inches to two feet high.
The stands of both hard red wheat and oats were thick, tall, and pretty weed-free. Unfortunately, the rye that I think of as extremely hardy doesn’t look like it will head out unless we get some more rain. That’s too bad because some of my customers are really looking forward to rye flour, but it’s not my biggest seller. I do credit the tons of compost, lime, and gypsum I put on the wheat field last fall as helping produce this great crop.
After a hiatus to catch up on mill orders and a backpack trip, I went to the farm today. The teff crop is uneven due mostly to a less-than-perfect seedbed. I worked it hard before planting but that particular patch of ground is really prone to being cloddy if at all wet, and moisture was variable. It was already late June when I planted, too. In any case, what came up looks pretty good. I just hope I’ll have enough to meet demand.
I spent three hours discing (using and implement with steel discs that chop and turn the soil) lightly to kill weeds on the ground where I will plant grain and cover crops this fall. At this point I must use mechanical weed control because the weed pressure is so great. No matter what the weather, weeds always grow faster than the crop. In a year or two I hope to use the cover crops to suppress the weeds and reduce the tractor work and diesel consumption.
In early September I hope to spread the 50 tons of compost, 20 tons of lime, and 10 tons of gypsum before the grain planting later in the fall. My soils are low in calcium and wild radish and morning glory love that condition.
On the other hand, it could be in the 80’s next week. From what I read, these wide swings could get even wider with climate change. I am working towards adapting our food production to meet those changes. We’ve got a huge snow pack this year but only two years ago we were in near drought conditions for irrigation water and thousands of acres of farmland were taken out of production. Even in this year of plenty snow I can see how dependent we are. You may have read of the rupture of the Bear River Canal below Rollins Lake just recently. It was mostly noted in the papers as a temporary disruption to residential customers. However, my soil consultant in Sheridan farms rice and had already done all his field prep when the break happened and now cannot plant at all because the window will have passed by the time service is restored. It’s estimated that 2300 acres of rice will not be planted this year as a result of that break. It’s a mixed bag: some growers will be hurt, but that will give a price boost to the growers who do have water. Such is farming.
A couple weeks ago I cut down the quinoa stalks with a couple helpers and spread them on tarps to dry. Last week before I left for a quick bicycle trip I picked it all up and stuffed it into a shipping container in case of rain. It drys down to fraction of its green weight, but the process is still very labor intensive. I have to finish restoring my antique harvester before I can thresh it and that will be done by hand too. I’m not really sure it’s a feasible crop at this scale. Unfortunately, mechanical harvesting doesn’t seem very possible because of major seed loss. It’s easy to grow, doesn’t need much fertilizer, doesn’t need much water—just hard to harvest. We may be getting it at the store courtesy of low-paid labor in South America. We’ll see how much my experiment works out.The corn is still very green. It got planted nearly a month late and the cool summer has delayed maturity. As long as it stays reasonably warm and we don’t get any bad blowing storms it can be harvested into November. Back in the Midwest corn harvest in the snow isn’t unusual. The yield may be affected by the late start but there will still be plenty for the CSA. When it comes time to pick I’d love to have some help for a day. We can make a party of it. I’ll keep you posted.
We pulled what was left of the beans a couple weeks ago and piled them to dry. Mice ate most of the black turtle beans, Red Mexican beans, and Jacob’s cattle. We’ll get some for seed but not to give out. Most of the black eye peas did survive. Fortunately, I can buy organic black beans and kidneys from a neighbor for those of you who want them.
All this may sound like downbeat news, but that’s just the way farming is. You get different conditions every year, sometimes too much rain, sometimes to little. Sometimes the mice are bad, sometimes not. I learn from every failure. The risk does make farmers cautious about trying new things, at least on a large scale. I’m confident we’ll get beans next year.
Right now I’m getting ready to order my cover crop seed because the forecasts are for a wet fall. I want to be all staged for planting if we get early rain. I need to test the soil that had a cover crop last winter to see how much nitrogen it provided. Red wheat especially needs good nitrogen to get high protein and thence make good bread. Whatever I don’t get from the cover crop I need to get through organic fertilizer, which is very expensive.
If you’re a CSA member I’m hoping you are enjoying the rolled oats. I took a long time deciding to by the machine but it is really fast and makes oats much more useful. I find also that if I roll the wheat before making flour the mill doesn’t work as hard and stays cooler. If you run out of rolled oats, the Briarpatch Market in Grass Valley carries them now. You can also find my wheat and rye berries, white teff, and whole wheat flour in the bulk section. The deli also makes a nice whole wheat baguette from my flour. Ike’s Quarter Cafe and the Flour Garden are also major customers.
Enjoy this fine fall weather while it lasts,
Somehow I imagine every year that there will be this lull after I finish planting and harvesting. Just gotta irrigate and cultivate, right? Not really. Every year I seem to be figuring out some new irrigation scheme and never getting it quite right. That’s why Chris Bierwagen, my host in Chicago Park, says he sticks to the old, laborious method of moving aluminum sprinkler pipe every day. He knows they work, what kind of coverage they get, and how long he has to water for different parts of the farm.
This year I decided not to spend $700 on plastic drip tape that would only last a year, and try the pipe. Drip tape seems simple but you have to check it regularly for leaks and you have to lay it all out and then pick it all up, plus turning it on and off. I was able to borrow a trailer full of pipe but then I needed new gaskets and some new tips and sort out the various styles to find compatible ones. All in all, I was late getting started on irrigation even though I got the timing of planting just right. I was sure happy to see that the sprinklers were covering 60 ft. wide at a time. I figured I could go out three times a week and water everything. Then Chris pointed out that I wasn’t getting water on everything because high pressure tips on the sprinkler heads put all the water out at the end of the radius so you have to overlap 150% or more to get everything watered. The result was highly variable plant growth through the field. Meanwhile, with everything else and getting a new cultivator set up I only got to the weeds when the corn was so high that I will only get one cultivation. With great relief I thank the interns from Living Lands and Riverhill farms for coming out for a tour and hoeing all the quinoa while they were there.
As I was scratching my head over the irrigation the other day, Chris’s nephew Kevin suggested they might manage the irrigation for me. I jumped at the offer because they are on the farm all the time and can see what needs water when and are moving pipe all the time. I’m paying them whatever they think it’s worth because I was driving a 24 mile round trip four or five times a week and not even doing a good job of irrigating, never mind the weeds. The commuting issue has troubled me from the beginning because it eats up time, pollutes the air, and makes it very expensive to grow crops if you don’t live where you farm. Clearly, if you are farming full time and spend every day there it’s not as big a problem but most farmers have off-farm jobs to make ends meet and few young farmers can afford to buy land in this area. This arrangement, if it works out for both me and the Bierwagens, will solve the whole thing. Of course, it may turn out to be too expensive for the value of the product but it was getting that way when I was doing the irrigating too.
Another upside this year is that I did get the corn and quinoa planted just at the right time, late though it seemed, and the weeds were behind the crops in getting going. I plan to go out and hoe everything now that I have more time and will have a relatively clean field. I got my four row corn planter going this year so I was able to use the tractor to cultivate since the rows were even. We had to replant some of the red corn, either because the seed was old or because the plates in the planter that regulate the seed flow were not the right kind for that corn. The replants came up pretty well though and are catching up with the older plants. Quinoa, a relative of beets, spinach, and lambsquarter, is proving to be hardy stuff. For whatever reason, some of the seeds germinated within a couple days of planting and others didn’t come up for a week or more. With many crops the field will never even out, but once up, that quinoa just shoots up. It’s also pretty drought hardy so the uneven irrigation doesn’t seem to have harmed it. The beans I planted in Wheatland are being irrigated by my friend Jim Muck. I don’t know if we’ll get any garbanzos, but the other beans look strong, if weedy. Same problem with timing on cultivating down there. For those that want them we’ll have at least Black Turtle beans, Red Mexican beans, Jacob’s Cattle beans, and some black eye peas.
In the upcoming weeks I need to go bring back the wheat, rye, oats, and barley from Wheatland and start running it through the cleaner. Weed seed is as bad as ever in the red wheat and barley but the extended rains in May caused the white wheat, oats, and rye to get so tall I was able to cut them mostly above the weeds. I’m going to get more screens for my cleaner and figure out how to get more of the weed seed out. The yield on the red wheat was down but was up on the other stuff. I don’t think the cost per pound to produce has changed much as a result so it’s still expensive to grow on a small scale, but I keep honing the operation to reduce costs. I bought a larger used flour mill that came up for sale this winter, gambling that someday I will need the extra capacity. It will do an easy 100 lbs an hour of wheat flour and makes it finer, so it has reduced my labor cost somewhat.
There were some glitches in the first CSA shares as you all know. I hope that next time I am organized enough to get it all right. I hope that you all remembered to get your shares. When I was in Nevada City last week there was still flour and grains in the box. Meantime, Riverhill Farm is generously selling my products at the Nevada City farmers market for no reason other than kindness. My online store at grassvalleygrains.com will be up this week. Please note that if you are local and want to order other things that you should email your order to me so you don’t pay shipping.
I’m going off next week for a quick four day backpack trip since I’m liberated from irrigating. Shortly after that we have to move my son back to school at Humboldt State. Harvest won’t come until October because of the late planting, but the next CSA share will be in September.
Enjoy your summer,